Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Metamorphoses, Books XI to XV - The whole of it flows

I had better finish up Ovid’s Metamorphoses before I forget what was in it.  It is full of memorable things, but I have limits.  Books XI through XV, the last five, in this post.

Book X ended with the songs of Orpheus, so he has to begin Book XI with Orpheus’s gruesome death, the sin that eventually leads to the downfall of Morpheus the Sandman.  That’s Neil Gaiman, not Ovid.  Then Ovid tells the great King Midas stories, his “head more fat than wyse,” classic fables.  Arthur Golding shifts register just a bit into a more fairy tale-like tone:

Then whither his hand did towch the bread, the bread was massy gold:

Or whither he chawed with hungry teeth his meate, yee might behold

The peece of meate betweene his jawes a plat of gold to bee.

In drinking wine and water mixt, yee might discerne and see

The liquid gold ronne downe his throte.  (XI, 277)

It’s like children’s poetry.

There’s a terrific storm at sea and shipwreck in Canto XI.  The Romans, the elite Romans at least, expressed in Seneca’s letters and many other texts, hated going to sea.  Or else loved reading descriptions of storms.  I just read Ovid rewrite the storm scene in the first book of Tristia, written on his way to exile on the Black Sea coast.

Ovid has been shaping Greek and Roman mythology into a more or less coherent history, from creation to Augustus, from the first lines of Metamorphoses, and in the last books the intersection of myth and history becomes firm – the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the founding of Rome take us to the present of Emperor Augustus.  Ovid did not invent this idea.  The generations of heroes, for example, with the parents of the Homeric heroes having their own stories like the hunt for the Calydonian boar, was well established, but now Ovid is up to Homer and Virgil and more human-scale stories.  Curiously, then, he skips the Iliad and writing around the Odyssey, keeping Circe’s metamorphosized pigs and using the Cyclops mostly for his role in the story of Acis and Galatea that for some reason early modern artists and composers liked so much.  Ovid’s version is grotesque and ludicrous.

Ovid only borrows scraps from the Aeneid, giving five lines to the story of Dido while keeping, of course, the transformation of the ships of Aeneas into mermaids.  As with Homer, Ovid can assume his readers know this “history” inside and out.

More surprising is the featured singer in Canto XV.  Where before, in Cantos V and X, we heard the Muses and Orpheus, this time Ovid gives us Pythagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher, an actual person, probably, legendary but not mythic, the perfect exponent of the great Ovidian themes:

              hear me out: nothing

endures in this world!  The whole of it flows, and all is

formed with a changing appearance; even time passes,

constant in motion, no different from a great river,

for neither a river nor a transitory hour

is able to stand still.  (Martin, XV, 527)

Metamorphosis is not an element of myth, but of existence, of human life, as we transform from infancy to childhood to adulthood to old age.  It would be stranger to turn into a tree or a flower, but it is still strange that I was once a baby.

None of this will surprise anyone who spent some time with the pre-Socratic philosophers, or with Lucretius, last year.

I’ll end by noting Ovid’s last bout of hideous gore, perhaps his goriest yet, when he has old Nestor tell the Homeric heroes about the famous battle between the Lapiths and the drunken centaurs.  Since it took place at a wedding no one was armed, and all of the weapons were improvised, allowing Ovid all sorts of creative, repulsive murders, each described with care, as in this violent cooking simile:

His crushed brayne came roping out as creame is woont to doo

From sives or riddles [also sieves] made of wood, or as a Cullace [broth] out

From streyner or from Colender.  (Golding, XII, 312)


Thanks to everyone who read along, whenever that was.  This has been pure pleasure for me, whatever my reluctance to write this dang thing.

1 comment:

  1. I have to say the Metamorphoses was my absolute best read of 2023. I'm so glad I did it, and am grateful for all your posts.